New models for educator professional development are supporting our emerging multilingual learners

In education, people often talk about “thinking outside the box” to redesign learning systems to meet emerging student needs. Yet all too often, we still barely make a dent in the solid structures of educational practices originally designed for students 75 years ago. 

Take teacher professional development, for example. Teachers today are responsible for instructing some of the most diverse students in the history of our nation, and yet the kinds of teacher preparation and ongoing professional development they receive is very similar to what was offered 50 years ago.

Perhaps, as educators, we’re still too attached to “the box.” Structures have been in place for so long that they seem immovable, and educators are still largely consigned to district professional learning days that offer new information but little on-going support for teachers to implement new practices. 

This is why it’s essential we promote new professional learning models that prepare and support educators and our changing, diverse students for success.

Professional development is necessary for supporting our Emerging Multilingual Learners

Today, teachers need more professional learning support with instructional practices to develop academic language for English learners (really, all learners).  No one is born as a “native academic English” speaker, and therefore our current practice of “hoping” students get English development through 30 minutes of ESL and lots of exposure in the classroom is not effective. 

We would never tell a teacher that it’s okay if they don’t know how to teach reading, the students will “get it eventually.” 

Language is just as important as reading for high school graduates to be able to enter into career and college options and yet providing effective teacher training in this area has been sorely lacking. Increasing academic language fluency is an equity issue. We know that bilingual students will face multiple barriers to attaining their career dreams, and we need to eliminate language barriers as one of them.

The English Learner in the Mainstream Coaching Initiative supports teachers and students for success

One professional development model that has shown great promise for supporting general education teachers’ learning about effective language instruction practices is the English Learner in the Mainstream (ELM) coaching initiative through Hamline University. Faculty leader Michelle Benegas and Director Amy Stolpestad are managing a five-year federal grant that provides training to ESL licensed teachers to provide English language instructional practices training and coaching to small groups of general education teachers at their school.

This model, in its fourth year, has trained 200 ELM coaches and provided more than 3,000 hours of professional learning related to language development instruction as well as coaching for more than 2,000 general education teachers in 27 school districts.

This model allows ESL teachers to receive training on professional development resources and coaching, then use an observation rubric to evaluate change in general education teacher instructional practices, set goals, and provide coaching. Early indications show an increase in effective academic language instruction for English learners. 

Perhaps one of the strongest take-aways from this professional learning model is that teachers enjoy learning from other teachers around topics that are of high-interest to them. This type of self-directed, on-going, peer-coaching-based learning design provides teachers an opportunity to individualize their learning to fit their unique instructional setting, build a relationship over time with a knowledgeable colleague, and establish their own schedule for learning so they can focus on personal learning when they are less stressed and have the capacity to make changes.  

Empowering general education teachers

In my district, Roseville Public Schools, general education teachers have given very positive feedback on this professional learning model and both ESL and general education teachers feel empowered in the process. It has also lifted the reputation of EL teachers because general education teachers begin to understand their craft. 

At one professional learning session, a general education teacher said with wonder, “You really need to know a lot to teach language.”  I believe sunlight shone down from above and a choir started singing.  The good news is that the EL teacher was able to provide continuing support to that teacher so she could “know a lot” too and better meet the language needs of English learners.

It’s time to move beyond thinking “outside the box” to removing the box altogether.  Recycle it and make room for new ways of connecting smart, skilled teacher leaders to learn from each other in more fluid and self-directed ways. 

The ELM project and Roseville Public Schools recently won a Local Government Innovation Award from the Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota for creating an innovative program that could be replicated. The current capacity to add video, online learning. and professional learning community work makes this the right time to re-think how we can empower educators to learn what they need, when they want it and reward them for the efforts they put into changing their practices. 

What would professional learning look like if we trusted educators to use self-directed learning and coaching time to improve their practice rather than relying on five or six full-day district professional development days?  I encourage you to take a look at the “boxes” in your life and determine ways to “recycle” them into something that works better for teachers and students!

For more information on the ELM coaching project, see these resources:

English Learners in the Mainstream Project – Hamline University

ELM Project Home Page

ELM professional learning materials

School-wide Support for ELs – resources on creating welcoming environments, immigration and family outreach.

Local Government Innovations Award press release

Research connection:  Kraft, M. & Blazar, D. (2013) Improving Teacher Practice: Experimental Evidence on Individualized Teacher Coaching. Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness – conference abstract.

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